The warming of relations between Vietnam and America will have some domestic implications in So Cal's Little Saigon. Still adamantly against the Communist government, any sort of rapprochement with Vietnam will invoke protests, but this might be ignored in favor of trade and other security issues, especially in the South China Sea which is an important trade route that can affect South Korea and Japan.
Over the past decade, Vietnam has expanded beyond its traditional textiles and coffee businesses to become a big player in the electronics manufacturing supply chain. Many of the world's smartphones are now assembled in the country, and giants such as Samsung have been growing their operations in Vietnam. The country, still run by a conservative Communist government, is now trying to figure out how to move beyond being just another cog in the manufacturing wheel.
This was evident while being on the road as I saw a huge Samsung factory.
Another article focuses on the notion of educating the Vietnamese to be more tech oriented.
Samsung remains serious about its investment here. Over the past seven years, the South Korean electronics maker has earmarked nearly $9 billion for facilities in Vietnam. That doesn't include the billions spent by other Samsung divisions and suppliers, such as a recent approval by the Vietnamese government for a $1 billion smartphone and tablet display factory in Bac Ninh province. Already, Southeast Asia -- Vietnam in particular -- has eclipsed China in terms of total Samsung workers, and the region even overtook Korea last year as the largest employee base. Samsung employs about 110,000 workers in Vietnam, with the vast majority in its two smartphone factories in the Bac Ninh and Thai Nguyen provinces outside Hanoi. When the company's new $1.4 billion consumer electronics factory opens in Ho Chi Minh City in the first half of 2016, Samsung will add about 5,000 more employees to its payroll. "Vietnam is now a growing country, so we have opportunities not only for business but also for workforce," Nguyen Van Dao, vice president of corporate marketing for Samsung's Vietnam operations, told me in the company's office in the Bitexco Financial Tower -- Ho Chi Minh City's tallest skyscraper.
For the most part, Vietnam runs on the scooter. To a certain extent, Thailand as well, but that country is now full of cars, so traffic is well . . . miserable. Unlike the USA, most of these scooters top out at about 250cc. Rarely do you see liter bikes (SuzukiGSXr 1000 or Harley Dynas or even a Cafe Racer). Much of it is practical. The streets are narrow and congested. Anything bigger might be problematic to run. It's also difficult to split lanes. This is when you go between cars to get ahead. In Vietnam, the scooter rules.
Sometimes you do see a big bike around, but those are mainly for show. So, these are a series of ride alongs.
So, as you can tell, not too many cars, but a lot of scooters.
This one gives you a true sense of the dominance of scooters in this part of the world.
But, the real reason that it makes sense is getting into tight corners. In Hai Phong, there are these narrow walk streets. Pretty much the only way to get around is on a scooter.
The other thing is price. Most of the scooters in SE Asia are Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki. Of the brands, I would say Honda is the most popular. Vespa is an elite brand. There are some obscure Chinese brands, but you settle if you can't get a Honda. Essentially, for way under 5,000 USD, you got transportation. I've heard of people picking up a model for just over 1,000 USD.
Today, it is really darn hot. Went cruising around town at 10:00 AM, and it was over 90 degrees. Traffic is less intense than in Hanoi, but the traffic rules seem the same. "Get the Frack out of my way!" Honking is a constant in Vietnam. It almost seems like a form of conversation. You have a polite warning honk. Then you get the F-bomb honk. Then you get the desperation honk to go against traffic, but you need to go someplace across the street honk, so let me go honk. But what is this port city?
Hai Phong is about 100 km away from Hanoi. During the war, it was subject to heavy bombing by US Forces. This was largely due to it being a deep water port which allowed for imports of Soviet equipment. Pretty much after a few decades, things were rebuilt. This is the thing about Asia; it's been subject to major wars from World War II, Vietnam War, Korean War. All the countries that got decimated came back. Such is the will of humanity, especially in Asia.
As with most Vietnamese cities, it is a complex amalgam of Post-Soviet ideas coupled with unbridled Capitalism. But when you compare it with Thailand, there is a sense of order and cleanliness that emerges. Things shut down in Vietnam by Midnight. Basically it allows the city to be cleaner of the detetrius of human existence. Thailand on the other hand is a 24 hour world. Things sometimes get cleaned only on Mondays.
People hustle in Vietnam. Even on bicycles in traffic. This city has less of a tourist pattern. In Hanoi, you see them everywhere in the Old Quarter. In Hai Phong, not so much. But perhaps it is here where you see the truly local life.
There are spaces here where you don't see anybody parked. The gaze of Uncle Ho is ever present in Vietnam. The Party still runs the show. It is sort of the same system as in China. In terms of this part of the world, two city states stand out. Hong Kong and Singapore. The potential. But still, the country has done well relative to the post Doi Moi (economic reforms) date of 1986.
Even now as I sweat my life away, there is a reason why people, especially chefs love this country. The food is largely locally sourced. There are no strip malls of corporate monotony giving the illusion of choice. In a span of 5 minutes, I spotted at least 6 different Pho Bo establishments, sometimes just on a curb.
In the US of A, this would not make the National news. We got too many murders going on in the States. With easy access to guns in America, our numbers would scare Vietnam if many knew about our murder rate.
Although Thailand is often described as a Buddhist country, there are huge elements of Hinduism in the culture. In fact, if you look at many spirit houses, there are often Hindu gods. One of the most prominent is Ganesha. You see various statues in spirit houses, and you also see him in the Thai Wats (temples). I can only describe Thailand's Buddhism as a blend.
Thailand and to a certain extent Vietnam are complex amalgams of centuries of convergences in cultures and ideas. Vietnam has a different sensibility than Thailand. Underlying Thailand's world is an undercurrent of Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism. Everything potentially is subject to spiritual worship. The temple down the street in Huai Kwang has two petrified trees which represent long lost lovers. Around the corner from my rented room, there is a corner which has a number of altars, none of which is Buddhist per se, but rather Hindu in origin. Ganesha is very prominent. The world literally feels alive here. Even in the cacophony of Bangkok traffic, there is a spiritual aspect to the country that differs vastly from what I would call the spiritual wasteland of America despite all the churches and religions.
Light versus Darkness
And yet, there is the dark undercurrent of a Vegas style atmosphere that some foreigners and locals look for. Between the temples and spirit houses, there are massage parlors. For all the years I've been in this part of the world, I refuse to do massages either legit or otherwise. My personal space is my personal wall. To go to this part of the world, you must have self discipline. In other words, you must be Buddhist. Don't be a Catholic and think the country is one big Fat Tuesday romp.
You can have too much of the dark side of Thailand. Many an old Farang (Westerner) live and die in Thailand. For many, they commit suicide. They've had to redo the walkways of the Bangkok Airport due to several Farangs who being forced to return home decided to jump to their deaths. Several million baht to prevent Farangs from suicide. The other thing about Farangs in Thailand is that they are automatically considered to be perverts and to be social trash. In other words, they are discriminated against, as they no longer are the majority, but a small expat minority. Russians are often connected to organized crime. British, Americans and Canadians and to a certain extent more Europeans are perceived as either perverts or old men trying to extend their midlife crisis. Japanese are here largely for business. The Chinese are well, the Chinese. It's a international intersection of both moral and shady agendas.
Why am I here?
Perhaps I am in pursuit of Ganesha. Ganesha broke off his tusk to write the Mahabharata. To a certain extent, I've written my Thailand play already. For the most part, it will never be produced, but I wrote it anyways. It is also said that Ganesha is manifestation of the gods that favors the artist and writer. Well, as a writer, I need all the gosh darn help I can muster.
A Viet friend of mine said that I was not Japanese, but more Thai or Vietnamese. Ever since the fateful day that my Thai friend from high school asked me to help him with his Andaman Tsunami relief work, I've been flying. Add the Fulbright Hays GPA grant in 2010, well, that sealed it.
Perhaps I come here to pray to Ganesha to give me the will to compose a play, a poem or a novel. I'm no Graham Greene. But then, he was a product of his time, as am I. Ultimately, it seems that people are always in search of a spiritual grounding for themselves. In Thailand, and to a certain extent Vietnam, it feels more alive here.
You can throw any seed into the ground here, and it will grow. I'm planting seeds of ideas. What will grow?
For whatever reason, I'm seeing a heck of a lot of Chinese in Thailand. In fact, even in Huai Khwang, you see them. Now, they are not exactly doing themselves some favors. Look at this rant by a Thai in a Korean Airport.
Now, this is not an anomaly. I've seen this sort of crazy behavior at the outlet stores in various parts of So Cal. They swoop in and buy entire shelves of bags like predatory lions tearing up a gazelle apart. Since the decline of the Russian economy due to sanctions, the Chinese have largely made up for the tourism decline. The coup also has colored America's perception of Thailand, and so the tourism level is down. But the Chinese. What can I say but show it.
Part of it is the nouveau riche factor. Many have only recently come into money, and so they still act very "country" as we would say in America.
Why? There was a film in China set around Chiang Mai. Basically, it was their version of the Hangover 2. Now we got a bunch of Chinese who want to be lost in Thailand. Sometimes Thailand wants them to get lost, but it is a nation that relies on tourism.
Me: There is my mother's long term care and other things in the US.
Me: It depends. Basically the earliest I can figure is when I hit 55. That's the earliest when I can retire.
Friend: That's good.
Me: I also have to see how it all aligns. With my significant other from Vietnam, there is that option as well. But the hospitals are better here, and it is a known quantity.
Friend: So when. I've got some plans. You're a legit teacher, so it should be easy. I can set you up today if you like.
Me: Sooner than I think maybe. America isn't a place to raise kids necessarily. It's hard to raise kids without governmental interference. The schools are great if you have money. If not, not so great. There is also crime. The cops are unpredictable and trigger happy. My inherent pessimism backed by logic is concluding America isn't the place anymore.
Friend: Did you say Kids?
Me: It's been in discussion.
Me: Yeah, thought it was a train that long passed the station. So, now I have to rethink everything. Without that factor, I might not have cared.
Friend: Well, kids?
Me: Yeah, she wants kids I think.
What about Children?
Kids generally in Thailand respect their elders. I get sometimes a wai from a kid walking down the street. Try that in America. Kids in Vietnam are often spoiled to the extent that they get out of control. The nouveau riche element in Vietnam is also breeding a generation that is over obsessed with consumerism.
This scene would be impossible in America. Fan Chan. My Girl. 2003. You can't let your child just go out to play in America. I see kids walking to and from school. In a sense, you can see this scene also happening in Vietnam, but not in Los Angeles anymore.
Essentially this is the heart of Bangkok. I've rented a room for a month at around 15,000 Baht, or something in the range of 450 a month in terms of US Dollars. Try to do that in Palm Spring, CA. The room is not bad. It's basically a large studio.
There's a fridge, a hot water maker, AC and other niceties. As of today, they brought up a drying rack and also a microwave. If you notice, there is no kitchen. This is because no one really cooks in Thailand. You go downstairs, and you have a street food scene that will make any Angelino cry as it is impossible to do in Los Angeles with its regulation of street vendors.
Late at night, the area is teeming with activity. Street food galore. In fact, this scene is pretty intense and the level of commerce at the street level is astounding. It is more impressive from the window of a taxi.
What does it mean? There are reasons why Thailand has been designated as one of the better places to retire. Well, if you have sufficient funds, you could make this work. Let's say you want to rent a place. For one month, the rent is 15,000 Baht. But that could go down as low as 8,000 Baht a month which is under 300 US dollars for a full year commitment. So, finding a home base is actually not too bad. Vietnam is comparatively more expensive, and you are out of luck eating past midnight, as the curfew engages at that time. These are things that you have to consider.
Huai Khwang is a fascinating area. It is where the real Thais live. Unlike Sukhumvit, or Thong Lor, you would be hard pressed to see a Westerner. There are Chinese, but the Chinese are everywhere.
This is a huge lotus patch on a river on the outskirts of Bangkok. Okay, I'm not moving. I'm actually on a pair (riverboat restaurant) watching the river flow by me. We are upstream from the ocean.
There are no flowers with the lotus, but you can tell how thick it is. It is said that you could sort of walk on it, but if you fall in, well, that's another story. Due to the drought, the rivers is actually running low.
“I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam - that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived. The smell: that’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat. Your shirt is straightaway a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from. But at night, there’s a breeze. The river is beautiful. You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war; that the gunshots were fireworks; that only pleasure matters. A pipe of opium, or the touch of a girl who might tell you she loves you. And then, something happens, as you knew it would. And nothing can ever be the same again.” ― Graham Greene, The Quiet American
This will be a different trip back. For the most part, it is both work and pleasure. I travel now to answer some internal questions that were brought up from that first Fulbright Hays GPA trip. Since my last trip, Thailand effectively had a coup and now has a military based government. Vietnam has effectively been in a constant state of conflict with China in regards to the territories in the South China Sea.
Thailand is also experiencing major international problems with the issue of "slavery" in the fishing industry.
Reports by The Guardian hasn't helped Thailand too much. The Eurozone basically now boycotts the Thai fishing industry until it gets cleaned up. However, it was always known that Burmese labor has been everywhere in Thailand. If you look at most construction sites, they are largely being built by Burmese labor.
So, why am I going back to Vietnam and Thailand? Much of it is personal. In time, when I retire, my intent is to retire in this part of the world. For this to happen, much groundwork has to be set up. I'm also researching the nature of the Thai education system. Why is their general knowledge profile so horrible.
I've seen this first hand. I've seen T-Shirts in Thailand with Hitler in 2013. Only now has it gotten higher on the radar. Part of it is the education system. With ASEAN trying to standardize the higher education system in this part of the world, it is striking how Thai Higher Education could fail so miserably in this case. The other thing that I will be looking at is the economic progress of Vietnam. Last time, it looked like major construction was going on. Hanoi's airport was undergoing renovations It is a small airport, and when I go back, it will be new.
I like some elements of Vietnam, but I am not tied to it like Anthony Bourdain. The food is good. The traffic is insane. The people are generally nice, but there is this undercurrent of capitalist desperation to make a buck, or dong as that is their currency. Yeah, that word for currency sounds weird.
I agree with Anthony Bourdain; it is an amazing country, but also a work in progress. Vietnam's infrastructure is a work in progress. The highways are hit and miss. Things shut down in Hanoi exactly at Midnight per government rules. Consumerism is crazy. Name brands are in high demand. In some ways, it is a bit crazy. Thailand is different. It is more laid back. Hence the concept of mai ben rai.
I don't know if I will be in Chiang Mai. But, I will be in Bangkok visiting a professor of psychology at a Thai University, and my high school friend. He also works for the UNHCR, so I will get first hand knowledge on what is happening with the various refugee problems in that part of the world. Last time in 2013, I saw Somali refugees housed in one apartment complex.
Thailand is unique in that once you arrive, there is this sense of spirituality that is difficult to contain in the written word. Everything is spiritual to a certain extent. Thais generally are Buddhist, but there are elements of animism in their culture. One aspect that is really different is the spirit house. This gives you an insight into the role of Buddhism and spirituality influences all of Thai life.
It is not just Vietnam that is intense. It is the entire region. If I retire and move, it will probably be to Thailand. The hospitals are better. When you think of retirement, you are aging, so hospitals are important. Traffic sucks. But you can get around. So it will begin in a few days.